Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

The U.S. Military Needs to Learn How to Train Auxiliary Armies

The Afghan army’s collapse shows American forces are using the wrong approach.

By , a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.
An Afghan National Army soldier takes a selfie
An Afghan National Army soldier takes a selfie inside Bagram Airfield after the departure of foreign troops on July 5. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

America’s war in Afghanistan is now over, but the war over the war has only just begun. The sudden collapse of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police looms large in these new debates among policy wonks, politicians, and journalists. Images of captured U.S. equipment in the hands of the triumphant Taliban brought bitter reminders of Islamic State soldiers celebrating in American armored vehicles after Iraqi security forces suddenly collapsed in 2014. How could these security forces, which the United States had spent so much time and resources training and equipping, collapse so quickly?

As for why the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police failed, the frequent answer in much of the reporting has been consistent: “corruption.” The same explanation was offered for the collapse of Iraqi security forces in 2014. Corrupt leaders at all levels diverted funds; recorded so-called ghost soldiers on the rolls to enrich their friends, relatives, and associates; and sold weapons to all comers—even the enemy. Consequently, ammunition ran short, vehicles failed for lack of maintenance, and units were often understrength, underpaid, and deeply demoralized. Collapse and defeat, often against substantially more poorly equipped but more cohesive and highly motivated foes, predictably followed. There is a temptation to attribute these failures to the particular place and people, to say that this is merely an Afghan or Iraqi problem. But this isn’t a new phenomenon; many of the same criticisms were made of the poor performance of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam before its collapse.

Yet the Taliban, in their long war in Afghanistan, somehow managed to survive and thrive despite the supposedly endemic corruption there. That’s because in many cases the behavior that Western observers are quick to term “corruption” is local social institutions, such as the bonds of family, patronage, and tribe, reasserting themselves against a backdrop of imposed foreign institutions. For the Taliban, these loyalties were a natural part of life; they didn’t process them as corruption and instead worked through them, rather than around them. Even before they came to occupy most of the country, the Taliban chose to work through the existing structures of power and local leaders in Afghanistan’s villages, co-opting, bribing, or intimidating those leaders as necessary.

America’s war in Afghanistan is now over, but the war over the war has only just begun. The sudden collapse of the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police looms large in these new debates among policy wonks, politicians, and journalists. Images of captured U.S. equipment in the hands of the triumphant Taliban brought bitter reminders of Islamic State soldiers celebrating in American armored vehicles after Iraqi security forces suddenly collapsed in 2014. How could these security forces, which the United States had spent so much time and resources training and equipping, collapse so quickly?

As for why the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police failed, the frequent answer in much of the reporting has been consistent: “corruption.” The same explanation was offered for the collapse of Iraqi security forces in 2014. Corrupt leaders at all levels diverted funds; recorded so-called ghost soldiers on the rolls to enrich their friends, relatives, and associates; and sold weapons to all comers—even the enemy. Consequently, ammunition ran short, vehicles failed for lack of maintenance, and units were often understrength, underpaid, and deeply demoralized. Collapse and defeat, often against substantially more poorly equipped but more cohesive and highly motivated foes, predictably followed. There is a temptation to attribute these failures to the particular place and people, to say that this is merely an Afghan or Iraqi problem. But this isn’t a new phenomenon; many of the same criticisms were made of the poor performance of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam before its collapse.

Yet the Taliban, in their long war in Afghanistan, somehow managed to survive and thrive despite the supposedly endemic corruption there. That’s because in many cases the behavior that Western observers are quick to term “corruption” is local social institutions, such as the bonds of family, patronage, and tribe, reasserting themselves against a backdrop of imposed foreign institutions. For the Taliban, these loyalties were a natural part of life; they didn’t process them as corruption and instead worked through them, rather than around them. Even before they came to occupy most of the country, the Taliban chose to work through the existing structures of power and local leaders in Afghanistan’s villages, co-opting, bribing, or intimidating those leaders as necessary.

In the meantime, the United States attempted to work through a national government whose structure was ill suited to Afghanistan and commanded little legitimacy. Money disappeared into Swiss bank accounts through such catastrophic national schemes as the Kabul Bank, or it simply washed back into Washington. As Richard Boucher, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, commented in a “Lessons Learned” interview (recorded in the recent “The Afghanistan Papers” project), he preferred contracts going to Afghans who “would probably take 20 percent for personal use or for their extended families and friends” than for the money to be spent on American consultants. “I want it to disappear in Afghanistan, rather than in the Beltway,” he said.

The problem of how to effectively mobilize a local population is not a new one; empires have sought ways to effectively utilize local manpower to achieve military objectives for centuries. Historians generally term such soldiers “auxiliaries,” and most historical empires have deployed such troops in at least some quantity.

The United States rarely conceptualizes its own policy in such flatly imperial terms, but self-directed conceptual dishonesty does little to enable effective strategic thinking, regardless of its political uses. The goal of several of the largest U.S. military inventions since World War II, particularly in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, have been exactly this: to stand up an auxiliary force willing to and capable of achieving American military objectives (be that supporting civilian administration, hunting terrorists, or fighting communists) either without substantial American military support or with only an economy of it.

That self-deception has made it difficult for the United States to make use of past successful historical exemplars, which have typically followed one of two patterns: Either auxiliaries are recruited entirely within the structures organic to their own society or those structures are completely replaced by radically deracinating those same soldiers, removing them from their own culture and essentially making the army their society. The Romans, whose exceptional success came in large part due to their adroit use of auxiliaries of both kinds, provide useful examples of both.

For instance, early in the expansion of the Roman Republic, the Romans were faced with the problem of effectively utilizing the manpower of subjugated, often freshly conquered communities within Italy. Their solution was to rely on the facade of an alliance system to obscure the actual coercive system of recruiting auxiliaries through their own organic social structures. Most of the various non-Roman Italians fought in ways fairly similar to the Romans and were thus readily compatible with the Roman military system.

Nevertheless, the Romans left the particulars of things like who would be drafted and how they would be paid to the local communities; Rome merely specified the number of men required. The junior officers for these formations, likewise, were local community leaders, selected by the communities they came from (and then subordinate to senior Roman officers). The Italians thus fought under their own local leaders, for their own communities, with their own sense of local pride. By aligning their recruitment system with the preexisting institutions of these Italian communities, the Romans got the manpower they needed at a minimum of cost and could still capitalize on the social systems that made these Italians tough fighters.

The Romans could also use similar systems to integrate very different kinds of troops into their armies. Client kingdoms often thus supplied troops to assist in Rome’s wars, fighting in their unique local style and under their own junior leaders. Numidian cavalry became a fixture of Roman armies; famously, the Numidian prince Jugurtha led one such detachment in Rome’s wars in Spain as part of an army led by the Roman Scipio Aemilianus. Likewise, the Roman victory over the Seleucids at Magnesia was chiefly due to an allied contingent of Pergamene troops under the command of their king, Eumenes II.

The main benefit of this system, that troops organized this way fought with the same style and level of effectiveness as they would have if fighting independently, could be a drawback. Sometimes a local fighting style was a poor match for Roman needs, whereas at other times the soldiers were simply less effective than Roman-trained troops. There were also local leaders who couldn’t be trusted with military forces of their own due to either fears of rebellion or just prioritizing their own goals over Roman ones. The Romans responded to this problem in the imperial period with the auxilia, noncitizen troops recruited from the various peoples of Rome’s empire into the regular, standing Roman army.

Here the Romans followed the deracination strategy. The auxilia were paid professionals in standing units that, particularly after the revolt of some Batavian auxiliary units in A.D. 69, were almost never deployed in their home country. Instead, they were moved across the empire. Some auxilia were recruited specifically for Rome to gain access to unique local fighting styles, particularly missile troops and cavalry (two essential forms of fighting that the Romans had never been very good at), though many auxiliary cohorts were trained as heavy infantry. Over time, the auxilia themselves mostly seem to have learned Latin, taken Roman names, and come to identify as much as members of the Roman army as members of a cultural homeland—which was, in any event, hundreds of miles away—while at the same time their local fighting styles and equipment diffused into the broader Roman army. Most auxilia, on retirement, seem to have settled near their forts; few, it seems, bothered to return home. The result was an extremely effective, professional force that Rome could rely on to fight with all of the discipline of the legions.

Of course, these are not the only examples. The British used both retaining organic social structures and deracination strategies, for instance, in India to considerable effect. Over and over again, however, the American approach has been to try to split the difference between these two contradictory methods: impose a Western-style military organization that does nothing to incorporate local power structures and loyalties while at the same time refusing to actually deracinate the soldiers in question. In this, the United States military has appeared starkly unwilling to learn from the lessons of either its own past or the pasts of other countries, partly due to a forever unrequited desire to shift back to conventional warfare with peer competitors and partly because, as the United States does not perceive of itself as an empire, it is incapable of learning the lessons of empires past.

What the historical precedents speak to is a need to choose: Either trim down American objectives in what are, effectively, occupied countries to those that could be achieved merely by organizing the existing military and political structures, or settle down to the task of building a new military organization from the ground up in a manner that fundamentally severs it from the civil society from which it came.

If the latter is deemed morally and politically unacceptable, smacking of empire, then that policy decision must come with its corollary that American objectives must be limited to what can be done within organic social structures, limitations that will generally preclude any substantial reorganization of those same structures—at least ones coerced by American power.

In either case, the U.S. military must begin to learn how to accomplish this task in contexts where its own military structures are not organic to the local communities, because it is almost certain that this is a mission that is not going away. “No more nation building” (and “no more army building” with it) are calls that have always had swift expiration dates. After Vietnam, the U.S. Army chose to abandon counterinsurgency doctrine rather than absorb the lessons of defeat only to find itself embroiled in one supposedly low-intensity military operation after the next. Former U.S. President George W. Bush famously campaigned against nation building in 2000 and started his first nation-building effort in 2001, while his successor Barack Obama campaigned against foreign military intervention, particularly in Iraq, in 2008 before intervening in Iraq and Syria in 2014. This latest determination to avoid nation building, counterinsurgency, and the auxiliary training that goes with is not likely to last either. The United States will need to raise auxiliaries again; it might as well start learning how.

Bret Devereaux is a historian specializing in the Roman economy and military.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

The Taliban delegation leaves the hotel after meeting with representatives of Russia, China, the United States, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Qatar in Moscow on March 19.

China and the Taliban Begin Their Romance

Beijing has its eyes set on using Afghanistan as a strategic corridor once U.S. troops are out of the way.

An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya addresses the U.N. Security Council from her office in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Sept. 4, 2020.

Belarus’s Unlikely New Leader

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya didn’t set out to challenge a brutal dictatorship.

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid

What the Taliban Takeover Means for India

Kabul’s swift collapse leaves New Delhi with significant security concerns.